Cover Story: Wireless Revolution

We’ve done stories here at Fleet Maintenance about vehicles that “talk” to the maintenance staff, but it’s always meant figuratively—the vehicles “talk” by sending fault code alert e-mails to the manager’s computer. Pretty amazing technology, that, but suddenly it seems passé, even old-fashioned. That’s because we’ve just been introduced to a vehicle that really does talk to the maintenance staff...

It’s a transit bus operated by Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA), and it has the ability to announce, in a loud, clear voice—insistent but never pushy—that it has a technical issue that requires maintenance. And it’s never wrong.

How that WMATA bus, and a few hundred more like it, learned to talk is an interesting story. According to Joe Saporita, product manager for Plainview, NY-based Clever Devices, the company that builds the AVM™ (Automatic Vehicle Monitoring) system that makes it all possible, the need arose out of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), which required both visual and audible bus stop, route and transfer announcements on buses.

“WMATA was the first installation of the AVM system, and they added some interesting enhancements,” Saporita says. “In Washington D.C. we added a custom feature where, when the bus pulls into the depot, when it’s in the fuel lane, the bus confirms that it’s actually at the depot being serviced, and it performs a series of checks to see if there are any active faults on that bus, and if there are it uses the announcement system to speak to the service technician and it says, ‘Maintenance action necessary.’”

You have to wonder if the first technician to hear that announcement fled the maintenance facility in terror, but today, seven years later, it’s positively old hat for WMATA technicians.


It was back in 1995 that WMATA was looking for a reliable method of communicating bus stop, route and transfer information to meet the ADA requirement. After a year-long test of several different products, WMATA chose Clever Devices’ Automatic Voice Annunciation System, and rolled it out in the 264 new buses they purchased in 1997.

“During the course of that rollout, Clever Devices was continuing to expand their technology,” explains Robert Golden, assistant chief engineer of vehicles—bus maintenance and engineering, for WMATA. “They discussed with us expanding the Voice Annunciator to include information on the performance and operation of the vehicle.”

In 1998, the first AVM system was installed on two buses, and then three more in 2000. By 2001, WMATA was so impressed with the data gathering abilities of the system that it became a standard installation on all new bus procurements.

“It was a back and forth, collaborative process between Clever Devices and WMATA,” Golden says of the pilot project. “Bus maintenance would relay to Clever what kind of information they were interested in tracking, and the system has just expanded and evolved ever since.”


“This all came about in an ‘off-the-record’ conversation with the people from Clever Devices. We’ve always felt here at WMATA—and this is common in the transit industry—that we over-inspect our vehicles,” says Phil Wallace, general superintendent of maintenance for WMATA. “We spend more time inspecting them, and not enough time is designated to the corrective action that’s required. And we wanted a tool that would wirelessly, invisibly—without having to touch the bus—give you an electronic health inspection of every vehicle when it comes into the service lane every night.”

Today, 627 of WMATA’s buses are equipped with AVM, and five of the Authority’s 10 depots have the “wayside” equipment necessary to download service information from those buses. And it’s all done, as Wallace says, wirelessly and invisibly.

“When the bus comes into range of an antenna in the service lane, it’s automatically doing a health inspection of that vehicle,” he explains. “Number one, it’s checking to make sure the AVM system is operating—it does a health inspection of itself! Then it goes through the various checks: engine parameters, transmission parameters, heating, ventilation and air conditioning, door system functionality and brake pushrod travel.

“If one of those criteria isn’t met, when the cleaner gets back in the bus to park it, the Voice Annuciator will tell that individual that the bus requires a maintenance action,” Wallace explains.

The maintenance action is then flagged in the work control center, so the cleaner will know not to let the bus go back out. At the same time, the maintenance department is notified that they have a bus that needs work before it can be put back in service.


Although it didn’t start out that way, the Clever Devices IVN® (Intelligent Vehicle Network) controller has become an all-purpose tool for transit fleets like WMATA—sort of a Swiss Army knife for fleet managers.

“What IVN® is, in general, is a controller on the bus that does multiple things,” explains Clever Devices’ Saporita. It began with the Voice Annunciator, he explains, then was modified to include a passenger counting function, which counts boardings and alightings, so transit agency operations can manage usage and service levels.

“So, we have this platform on the bus, and we came up with this concept for AVM,” says Saporita. “There are all these networks on the bus, and we tied our controller into those networks, and any system that was tied into that network, we could then capture data from them in real time, store it, and when the bus gets back to the depot we can upload it via a wireless connection.

“That data goes to a database, and we have a software product, called the AVM client, that displays and reports that information to the maintenance people, via automatic reports that are printed out and via E-mail as well,” he says.


When AVM was developed in the late ‘90’s, only the engines and transmissons were intelligent enough to create data that the system could gather and report. Since then, more and more intelligent systems have been put on buses, but the Clever Devices engineers don’t always wait for the bus engineers to get up to speed.

“One thing WMATA did that was really ahead of its time concerned a problem they had with their doors,” recalls Saporita.

“The door systems on buses are notoriously un-intelligent. They don’t have a lot of processing ability,” he says. “So, we added these custom solutions to the AVM product where we would actually time how long it took for the door to open and close.”

Now WMATA could monitor those signals and check the times, and if they perceived that a door was taking too long to close, or was opening too fast, AVM would generate a fault that would be sent to the maintenance people when the bus came back to the depot.

“So, there are two things we’re doing,” Saporita explains. “We’re monitoring the intelligent systems that are already there, like the engine, and there are other systems that are not intelligent that we provide intelligence to. We generate faults ourselves, based on data that we get into our controller.”


“We’re learning different things and new ways to use the system day in and day out,” Wallace admits. “Now, initially, if you don’t go slow but sure, you can be overwhelmed with the amount of information that you get.”

That’s exactly what happened when the buses started talking. During the pilot program, Wallace and his staff went through “an arduous process” of weeding out unimportant, irrelevant and even erroneous fault codes, and building filters into AVM to tighten the monitoring parameters.

“We have one sub-fleet of buses—the New Flyers that we call ‘the vacuum cleaners’—their cooling sytems are very robust, and at no charge we sweep the streets of Washington D.C,” Wallace says. “They suck it all up into the radiator!

“Now, a Cummins 8.3 gas engine is set up to give you an indicator light at a certain temperature, and a shut-down at a certain temperature,” he explains. “Well, when the bus comes into the service lane, we’ve got it set up so that, about 12 degrees prior to getting that light, it’s going to tell us, ‘Hey, you need to check the radiator in this bus, because if you don’t, tomorrow it’s going to run hot.’”

Because of that custom alert for that specific fault code for that particular cooling system for that precise engine for that unique bus, WMATA’s technicians could pull only those buses that needed their radiators blown clean instead of having to clean every radiator every night.

“So, it’s all about setting up your parameters based on your real-world operations,” Wallace says. “We work hand-in-hand with Clever Devices, as well as the bus OEMs and the sub-component manfacturers—because you’re tying into engines, transmissions, HVAC systems—you work through these issues to filter down and only get the data that’s really legitimate.”


If they wanted to, WMATA could follow the lead of other Clever Devices customers, who use AVM to monitor their bus camera systems, “black box” event data recorders, tire pressure and temperature, brake wear, batteries, and air conditioning systems.

“In the past, you were limited by the amount of bandwidth on the low-speed SAE J1708 network,” says Saporita. “Now there’s more than a 20-fold increase in bandwidth with J1939, you can add more systems. That’s why we introduced the AVM2 product in 2005. It helps transit system authorities spend less time diagnosing problems and more time fixing them.”

And how do the technicians cope with all this new information? Have their skills expanded alongside the network’s bandwidth?

“We’ve got an internal filtering process, and we get an automatic ticket for one of these critical issues, which, quite frankly, is reduced to next to nothing,” Wallace explains. “But every day, the division gets a printout of everything that has come through the service lane. Our lead people—our senior assistant shop foremen—they’ll review this data, and they’ll also review the history against this data, and they’ll schedule work accordingly. And that’s given to the technician on the floor, so we can do trend analysis and things like that. So, we filter the process so it really isn’t overwhelming to the technicians or the lead people.”


Once you start to build of a database on the performance and operation of your vehicles, a funny thing happens: You get a much better idea how to spec’ your new vehicles.

“AMV is not just a good day-to-day preventive maintenance tool, it gives you a vast array of data that you can go in and look at, and get real world information,” Wallace says. “You can see, when you build your bus spec’, how many cycles does a door actually see in our environment? Now you can make sure you’ve built a robust enough system, based on real world data.”

Compliance issues are also less complicated in light of the data Wallace has at his fingertips. For example, drivers are required to cycle their wheelchair lifts before they leave the division, and now the division superintendent can run a daily report on all the buses that went through the required wheelchair lift cycle, and check it against the operators who were assigned to the buses.

“I come in here every morning and I get a series of five e-mails, one from each location, and I get a little snapshot of what’s going on at each location,” says Wallace.

Want more? Because of AVM, Wallace says that WMATA is now saving millions of dollars in warranty claims. When a newly-delivered sub-fleet of buses exhibited a problem with dragging brakes, for example, data collected by AVM revealed an engineering flaw that could be traced back to the axle assembly manufacturer.

“The camshafts used in the rear brakes were not the proper camshafts,” Wallace explains. “Long story short, the manufacturer had to come in here on their own dime and reline the brakes on 250 buses.”


The lifespan of a WMATA bus is 15 years, higher than the industry average of 12 years. With AMV, Wallace hopes that those 15 years will be trouble-free.

One way he can make sure that happens is to use AMV to check the build quality of new buses as they come off the assembly line.

“Now when we buy new buses, we bring a laptop along on the plant inspection,” Wallace says. “In our upcoming procurements, we use AVM onboard as part of the process.”

“This started when the Chicago Transit Authority came to us and asked if they could bring the product to the manufacturing facility, so that as the bus comes off the assembly line, runs its test route and coems back, we can do a thorough checkout then and there,” explains Saporita. “Their thinking was that it would help them and the OEM, and that is the truth.”

The OEM was uneasy about the idea at first, thinking it would slow down delivery times. Instead, they found that their inspectors were making more informed evaluations before signing off on buses, and they saved money addressing quality and warranty issues at the plant.

“It’s certainly a lot cheaper than shipping the bus, then going out to deal with a service issue at the customer’s site,” says Saporita. “That was something that we did not foresee,” says Saporita, “but now we offer it to all our customers.”

“Better to fix it now when you have total control, at the earliest possible stages of a procurement run, than to build 250 problems and then have to go back and spend the money and time to fix them later,” Wallace says.


Wallace is in a unique position at WMATA. With approximately half of his 1,508 buses and 10 maintenance garages using AVM, he can see at glance how the divisions with the new system compare to those without.

“We’re able to jump on trends a heck of a lot faster” at the AVM-equipped shops, he notes. “Of course that’s skewed, because the shops with AVM all have newer buses, but you have an easier time spotting trends because they’re monitored every day.

“We’ve seen three of four high dollar issues—I mentioned the brakes, and we also discovered problems early on with our fire-supression system, as far as mis-engineering of sensors, and we’ve seen some issues with the logic in the transmission we’re using,” Wallace says. “It’s been very beneficial in trend analysis, because you’re seeing things every day. You’re not having to wait 6,000 miles between inspections, or having to wait for it to break down. It’s a major predictive maintenance tool, to catch problems before they become problems.”


Because of AVM, Wallace has big plans for the future. He now has the fleet operating on new maintenance management software, and by the end of 2008 he hopes to have it fully linked to AVM. At that point, WMATA’s maintenance operations will be essentially paperless.

Wallace will be retired before the entire fleet is running on AVM, but he knows that WMATA will be humming along, trouble-free, because of the system he helped put in place.

You have to wonder what the buses will have to say about that.